Southwest faces Senate hearing over holiday travel chaos

Passengers check in for a Southwest Airlines Co. flight inside Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, on August 10, 2022.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines‘ chief operations officer is scheduled to face questions from a Senate panel on Thursday over the carrier’s December meltdown that stranded thousands of passengers over the holidays.

Andrew Watterson plans to apologize for the travel chaos before the Senate Commerce Committee. The president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Casey Murray, will tell the panel that the carrier ignored warning signs about its operation, according to written testimony reviewed by CNBC.

Southwest has said it canceled more than 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31. The issues started with severe winter weather around the U.S. but the carrier lacked the technology to keep pace with the numerous flight changes, prompting the airline to scrap most of its schedule for several days to reset its operation.

The chaos pushed Southwest to a loss in the last quarter, costing it $800 million in pretax earnings.

The incident capped a year of chaotic travel for many passengers as airlines struggled to ramp up to meet a rebound in demand. Pressure on the industry has grown over the last year while some lawmakers and the Biden administration are seeking stronger consumer protection.

The pilots union, which is in contract negotiations with the company, as well as the flight attendants’ union, have warned about scheduling problems for years.

“Warning signs were ignored. Poor performance was condoned. Excuses were made. Processes atrophied. Core values were forgotten,” Casey Murray said in written testimony ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

Southwest’s COO plans to defend technology improvements since the debacle in December and others in the works. Its executives have said its crew rescheduling software wasn’t designed to handle so many cancellations that occurred in the past, but its provider, General Electric said it has delivered updates to Southwest that the airline is testing.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, but a Senate briefing on the Chinese balloon that the U.S. shot down last weekend will likely delay questioning.

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